Note to readers: Liturgical entries on this blog are based on the traditional calendar of the Books of Common Prayer and the traditional one-year Eucharistic lectionary. If you follow a newer calendar or three-year lectionary, there are variations in names for some Sundays and in the readings.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Smells and Bells?

The expression "smells and bells" has often been used among Anglicans, Lutherans and others to refer to high celebrations of the Eucharist using incense and Sanctus or small altar bells. Technically speaking, both practices are adiaphora, or indifferent matters, which may or may not be used to embellish a particular service, Recently, I have heard several comments on these matters and have decided to add my observations.

First, let us switch the order and consider bells. Bells have a long history in many religions (except Islam). They have been used to get attention, to express sorrow, to express joy, and to mark especially significant moments. In Western Christianity, the Sanctus or altar bells date from the Middle Ages, and their increasing use seems related to the history of the development of the doctrine of transubstantiation. They have been rung at several points, particularly at each "holy" in the Sanctus and before and after Christ's Words of Institution. Because of their historic associations with transubstantiation, many Anglicans over the centuries have opposed the use of these bells at the Eucharist. Some people have also viewed them as a disruption in quiet said services. Personally, I am not fond of altar bells, and find them distracting.

Now, let us turn to the use of incense. Incense also has a long history in many religions, in particular in the Jewish Temple. Incense has several uses: the smoke symbolizes  prayers rising heavenward, it has been a costly (and for some a lovely) offering to divine honor, and in some cases, it has been a practical cover for the smells of a sacrificial cult (or in some European churches for a musty building). In the pre-Constantinian Church, incense seems to have been avoided because of the association with pagan emperor cult. After the fourth century, Christian use of incense seems to have slowly increased, and in the Latin Church, it became associated with ideas of the Mass as a repetition of Christ's sacrifice. For this reason, most Anglicans and others influenced by the Reformation tended to abandon the use of incense in worship. Despite occasional exceptions, incense did not make a come back among Anglicans till the Tractarian and Ritualist movements. Even then, its use was infrequent. Again, it is possible to use incense in ways that do not reflect pagan, Old Testament or medieval Roman views of sacrifice, but I see no really positive reason to use incense.

There is also another consideration regarding incense. Some people, including the writer, have allergic and asthmatic reactions to some scents such as incense. At times when I have been involved to participate in services using incense, I have had an adverse physical reaction and had to leave during the service or rush to find an inhaler afterward. Many other Anglicans have told me of similar reactions. So if a cleric is determined to use incense on occasion, he should should give advance notice and make sure that there is another service available without incense. Pastoral ethics require no less!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter 2017

I always find myself a little lost for words about Easter. The Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is the overwhelming expression of divine power and grace in all human history. Sermons, hymns, and liturgies are important and humanly necessary responses, and yet they only scratch the surface. So for me, the reading of a resurrection Gospel and basic prayers of thanksgiving, including a simple early Communion service, make the point as well as the largest and most elaborate theatrical liturgies.

The Lord is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Thanks be to God. Alleluia!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Thoughts on Good Friday

I did not manage to observe Good Friday the way I anticipated. Frankly, I was frustrated that several different family responsibilities intervened in my planned schedule. Nevertheless, I did hear some impressive homilies/meditations and music over the media. In my drives, I also dropped in on two three-hour services, and I thought about a moving evening service that I failed to make. The clergy and others who make these services possible are to be commended for their efforts and their witness to the cross of Christ. And it was important to me that I was able to be present in churches with other Christians who were also thinking of Christ's sacrifice for our salvation.

Most importantly for my spirituality, there were a few moments when I really meditated on some of the collects and the Passion Gospel from St. John. My heart and mind focused on the meaning of it all. I prayed the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us sinners") for myself and all the people I know, and a sense of simple gratitude for divine love and grace flooded over me. So although  my personal plans for spending the day were derailed, God still used Good Friday to speak to me. Thanks be to God, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit for the mighty and fearsome deeds of redemption and for His loving grace!

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Palm Sunday?

Most contemporary Christians, even those who do not use medieval rituals/ceremonies,  know the Sunday before Easter as Palm Sunday. And on the first day of the week before Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Gospel account of people praising Jesus and waving or strewing palm branches is lovely and meaningful. As believers, we certainly think that Jesus was the Christ and deserved to be honored as a king coming in peace. So reading the Palm Gospel is appropriate, and there is nothing inherently wrong with having a few leaves of palms or willows in commemoration.

Unfortunately, there are problems associated with this day from the first century onward. The crowd that praised Jesus did not really understand or appreciate Him. Five days later, some of the same people may have been yelling "crucify him."
In addition, from about the 8th century, the medieval church got carried away with the ceremony of the Palms. It became more and more elaborate, and in the popular consciousness overshadowed the more ancient liturgical emphasis of the Passion Gospel. So it should not be suprising that in 1549 Archbishop Cranmer tried to shift the emphasis. The ceremony of the Palms was abolished, and from then through 1662, Anglican Prayer Books simply called the day "The Sunday next before Easter." Even under Anglo-Catholic pressure, the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer remained subdued in calling the day "The Sunday next before Easter, commonly called Palm Sunday."

Over the years, it seems that we have seen a repeat of the medieval corruption. Ceremonies, palm leaves, music and processions have become more and more widespread and elaborate. And in many Anglican and other churches, these cute rites have come to overshadow the ancient and Reformation emphasis on Christ's Passion. While I do not necessarily advocate the abolition of the observance, I do think that we should see why Cranmer did so. I also think that the Palm part of the Sunday need to be kept simple and low-key.